Diary of the War: May 1918

Side by Side in the North Sea

The Admiralty issued a brief press release on 4 June 1918:

“One of H.M. destroyers was sunk on the 31st May, after being in collision. There were no casualties.” (1)

B&W photograph of ship in port broadside view, smoke billowing.
Destroyer HMS Fairy © IWM (Q 38854)

An unfortunate but trivial incident, since all hands had fortunately survived? Not quite.

The ‘HM Destroyer’ in this press release was HMS Fairy, 355 tons, under the command of Lt. Geoffrey Howard Barnish, RNR, sister ship to HMS Falcon, 375 tons, commanded by Lt. Charles Lightoller RNR, survivor of the Titanic (see previous post on Charles Lightoller). Falcon had been lost just weeks earlier after a collision with HM Trawler John Fitzgerald, 235 tons, during convoy esort duties on the North Sea coast.

In the early hours of 31 May Fairy was also on convoy escort duties in the North Sea, together with six armed trawlers and an armed whaler. However, history was not quite about to repeat itself.

Barnish considered that a destroyer escort should be “to seaward and a little abaft the beam of the rear ship of the convoy.” (2) In this way the escort could steam rapidly forward to the scene of any attack, rather than be forced to double back to deal with the attacker.

He was relieved to round Flamborough Head, for he considered a U-boat  attack on a convoy south of Flamborough Head unlikely, because of the shoals in the area. That is enough information for us today to realise that it was a southbound convoy and thence to guess at its likely composition, so we can see why Admiralty press releases gave so little away. Statistically, however, his confidence was misplaced, and a cursory glance at wreck site remains for 1914-18 reported near Flamborough Head demonstrates that approximately half were indeed attacked south of Flamborough. (3)

That same night UC-75, displacing 417 tons on the surface, and under the command of Walther Schmitz, was also on war patrol seeking a target north of the minefield she had just laid to the south off the Outer Dowsing Shoal. A southbound convoy, laden with valuable cargo for London, presented a suitably attractive opportunity for an attack.

The convoy found her first. Around 2am, SS Blaydonian struck UC-75 as she passed overhead. As a southbound collier, she was laden with coal and low in the water, so UC-75 received quite a hefty blow that sounded to Barnish as if his worst fears had been realised with a torpedo fired among the convoy and he left his station to investigate.

Over on UC-75 the damage to her conning tower prevented the hatch being properly shut, leading to water ingress and forcing her to surface. In the meantime the convoy steamed on – to inflict more damage in the dark. SS Tronda was a Norwegian flying the British flag under the Shipping Controller (she would survive the war and revert to Norwegian ownership), and as was typical for Norwegian vessels under these circumstances, she went where she was most needed, on a coal run. She too ran over UC-75. Then the SS Peter Pan, owned by Furness, Withy & Co., one of the chief shipping companies in the coal trade, and therefore also a laden collier, was the next to strike UC-75. We can imagine the submarine reeling under each blow like a punch-drunk boxer on the ropes.

On arrival at the scene it was not yet clear to Barnish whether the submarine was friend or foe. There was sufficient history of U-boat operations off the Yorkshire coast and the apparent sound of a torpedo attack to make an enemy identification all too plausible, but there was still some doubt. Despite the report, there was no evidence of an actual attack and there was also the  basic knowledge that British submarines were known to be operating on secret missions out of the northern ports.

In that new age of modern warfare, Barnish made his decision with the information he had available. He turned to an ancient tactic – he moved to ram his target, weaponising his vessel should the submarine prove to be German, but astern, a manoeuvre which would allow the crew to escape and avoid loss of life, should it prove to be British.

What happened next is not fully clear: Barnish and Schmitz’s versions were necessarily coloured by their respective viewpoints and the order of events has also been interpreted differently by subsequent commentators. Barnish then heard voices shouting ‘Kamerad! Kamerad!’, identifying the vessel as a U-boat, and proceeded to ‘order the coxswain to port the helm in order to hit her in a more vital spot’, but he felt that they were too close for that manoeuvre to be effective. (4) According to another (secondary) version, these voices were heard after the impact. (5)

Barnish recognised that the Fairy was probably damaged in this first pass but nevertheless renewed the attack, ordering the U-boat to be raked by gunfire as Fairy turned to ram the submarine once more, with the U-boat returning fire. Fairy‘s bows struck the U-boat aft of the gun, crumpling up on contact, so that they were under water within seconds and two of the German crew were able to climb from one vessel to the other, while others were picked up by Fairy. Not all, however, and Schmitz would go on to interpret the speed of the renewed attack and the accompanying gunfire as aimed at the crew in the water, as well as at their vessel. (6)

At this point in the war the seas off Flamborough Head (and elsewhere) were regularly perturbed with scenes of wartime strife. Similar allegations against U-boat crews would surface in early July with the discovery of a boat washed up at Flamborough, carrying dead bodies which bore signs of wounds inflicted by gunfire after getting into the boat. (They were identified as from the Madeleine, a French lugger damaged, but not, in fact, sunk, by UB-40 on 2 July 1918.) (7)

Reverting back to the events of 31 May, another life and death struggle was about to take place. Generally speaking, vessels lost in English waters either to accidental collision or deliberate ramming demonstrate that the colliding/ramming vessel usually escaped relatively unscathed, with the force transferring to the vessel in contact, but occasionally the force is so great that the former also sinks. (8) So it proved to be in this case: Fairy had taken on an enemy larger and more robustly built than herself and paid the price.

Barnish and his crew quickly realised that their ship was sinking too rapidly to make any attempt at beaching feasible, the nearest land being at least 10 nautical miles away, so the crew were sent off in the boats, along with the prisoners, who were thus shipwrecked for the second time in less than an hour. Barnish and two signal ratings remained behind to signal a message saying that they were about to abandon the vessel, then swam to a Carley float. All the British crew would survive, but only 14 out of 31 of UC-75‘s men would survive their double shipwreck to be picked up.

B&W photograph of men in uniform around an inflatable liferaft.
Men gather round their Carley float during a boat drill aboard HMS Widgeon, on convoy duty in the North Sea, during the Second World War. © IWM (A 18444) This scene would have changed little, if at all, from 1918, when Barnish and his two crew were forced to make use of their Carley float in the escape from HMS Fairy.

Barnish and his crew were decorated in 1918 and received prize bounty money in 1920 for this action. (9) Schmitz was made a prisoner of war and would die in the flu epidemic of 1919.

And still UC-75 and Fairy lie half a mile apart SE of Flamborough Head, sites of mutually assured destruction. Both have been identified by internal and structural evidence (identification on propellers in the case of UC-75 and the telegraph and pressure gauges in the case of HMS Fairy) and external damage. (10) Despite being struck by Blaydonian, UC-75‘s conning tower was reported in 2016 as still intact, while Fairy‘s bows bear the scars of her attack on UC-75. She lies seaward of UC-75, just as, a century ago, she had kept station seaward of her convoy.


(1) Widely reproduced in the UK press, for example, in the Newcastle Journal, 5 June 1918, p6.

(2) Barnish’s own words, reproduced in Dorling, T (“Taffrail”). 1931 Endless Story: being an account of the destroyers, flotilla-leaders, torpedo-boats and patrol boats in the Great War London: Hodder & Stoughton

(3) National Record of the Historic Environment (NRHE) database: 2018

(4) Dorling 1931; Edinburgh Gazette 20 September 1918, No.13,323, p3498

(5) Termote, T. 2017 War Beneath the Waves: U-boat Flotille Flandern 1915-1918 London: Unicorn Publishing Group

(6) ADM137/3898, German submarines UC-48-94: papers concerning details of vessels, interrogation of survivors, photographs and ship’s book of UC-92 (The National Archives, Kew)

(7) See, for example, the Scotsman, 6 July 1918, No.23,431, p7; uboat.net

(8) National Record of the Historic Environment (NRHE) database: 2018

(9) Dorling 1931: Edinburgh Gazette, 20 September 1918, No.13,323, p3498; 25 May 1920, No.13,598, p1305

(10) UK Hydrographic Office reports 8971 (UC-75) and 8974 (Fairy).